Christmas Midnight Mass at Mississippi Abbey
Scripture Readings: Is 9:1-6; Ti 2:11-14; Lk 2:1-14
The most popular theory through the centuries of why the birth of Jesus Christ is celebrated on Dec. 25 is that it counteracts the 3rd century pagan celebration of the “Birth of the Unconquered Sun.” At that time the shortest day of the year (the Winter Solstice) was thought to be the 25th. Just when it seemed that darkness was about to suppress the light of day, the sun began to regain strength. Darkness was conquered. What else of nature could better signify the birth of Jesus Christ?!
I remember just a few weeks after my ordination to diaconate sitting on the shore of the Sea of Galilee reading Lauds as the sun began to rise. It had just peeked over the hills when I came to the verse in the Canticle of Zachary:
“In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness…
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
The light comes gradually to dispel the darkness. It is one thing to read this as a teaching or as a religious sentiment. It is quite another thing to experience it in one’s life. To rejoice at the light, we must first know the fear of the dark. As we heard Isaiah say tonight, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…You have brought them abundant joy…” The dawning of a new light that we celebrate tonight is a conversion. It is a change of perception. More than that, it is a change in our understanding of importance. And as a conversion it is a gift. The letter of Titus is somewhat more specific: the grace of God in Christ is “training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires.”
The conversion began shortly after the birth of Jesus Christ. That’s when “the people” (as one commentator put it: “the lowest, mangiest, stinking shepherds”) saw the light and were given a sign: swaddling clothes and a manger; i.e., a feeding trough.
Jesus is born in Bethlehem, which means “House of Bread”. He is presented to the people in a food box…and the angel says it is a definitive sign. It is a definitive sign because “in the beginning” the Creator gave the gift of food as a lasting provision for His creatures. A manger contains a vegetable food that promotes peace among those feeding. Indeed, what people nurture upon is a starting point for alliances and for communion as they peacefully share in what gives life. Those capable of responding to this as a universal and permanent gift do so with thanksgiving.
The gift of food is a common theme in the Bible and particularly in the gospel of Luke. For Luke, most events in Jesus’ life happen on the way to a meal, at a meal, or just after one. Another theme of Luke is poverty. It simplifies what it means to be human. It occasions serious decisions about what is important. So, the other sign the shepherds are given is one they would readily identify with: swaddling clothes, used on babies of the very poor.
The only other place in the Bible where swaddling clothes are mentioned is in Ch. 7 of Wisdom. There King Solomon says, “I too am a mortal man… And I too, when born, inhaled the common air, and fell upon the kindred earth; wailing, I uttered that first sound common to all. In swaddling clothes and with constant care I was nurtured.”
The other sign, then, points to Jesus’ humility. He perceives His common humanity and He is clear about what matters most. These give Him the authority to say “Repent and believe” and with the words “Follow Me” He will “guide our feet into the way of peace”.
With these words He shows that He knows the destination and the way. That’s what one looks for when she knows she is lost in the dark. So, He knows the heart of she who will follow Him. Because He is human and knows what matters most, He calls her by name, i.e., by her life experience, how she understands it, how she perceives, and what she longs for. Gradually, over the course of a life, these will be brought into His new light and she will be nurtured by the House of Bread. Let us place our trust in His guidance by saying,
“Bless us O Lord, and these Your gifts
which we are about to receive.
You are Christ the Lord.”
Christmas Midnight Mass at Mississippi Abbey
Christmas Midnight Mass at Mississippi Abbey
Scripture Readings: Is 9:1-6; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14
On this night we remember not only the birth of Jesus Christ, we remember the beginning of a new age of salvation. A “new age of salvation” is a doctrinal way of characterizing this night. What is the lived experience of this “new age”? It is the experience of a new life; a new purpose or intention in living. It is often called being “born again.”
This baby is God and God is love. St. Augustine says that love is what moves us. Our will, he tells us, decides the orientation or directions that love moves us. What it moves us toward is determined by the free will that our self-emptying Father gave us. The will always moves us to the good. It can move us toward the temporary good of the world, or it can move us toward the eternal good which is God. Making that choice depends on the repentance that John the Baptist called us to. Repentance is a change in thinking and living that joins us a community of God’s people.In the gospel of this year, that of Luke, John uniquely includes an ethical challenge. In answer to the question “What should we do?” he tells tax collectors, soldiers, and “the crowd” to “produce “fruits worthy of repentance.” These fruits will reverse the social order of the time. John tells them and us to produce social and ethical acts of selfless concern for others even those of low social status. In short, stop scapegoating. This requires the adoption of new social standards, new beliefs and behaviors that will guide one in every aspect of their lives. This radical change in ways of thinking and behaving will change diverse and once-alienated people into a community of God’s people; into a community of self-emptying people. The child will grow to call us to this and to exemplify it. He will call us to put new wine in new wineskins.
In other words, whereas in the old era repentance was accepted by fasting and mourning, here we see, for example in the conversion of Matthew/Levi, that “eating and drinking” or celebrating is the way of accepting the change of thinking and living, of relating to others that Jesus came to call us to. “There is more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner…” Thus, tonight people will open presents, enjoy sweets and celebrate the good news of being the people of God. We’ll wish it were Christmas every day!
This depends on humility. Humility is the center of marital and our monastic way of life. It is in humility that our will directs our love to the enduring love of this child. Love moves us, but the will decides what it moves us toward. We can only love what we know and enjoy. It takes intimacy to know and love its goodness. To know and enjoy this child, and all He will teach about a change of thinking, living, and caring about one another, we must put our principles before one’s own personality. That principle is humility: it makes room for the presence of God in the will. After all, the fundamental choice the will makes is to love God or to love self in place of God. Dominant love of self is called “pride.” The choice of love-object is of fundamental moral importance not only to self, but to one’s community. The infant tonight calls us to choose God. We do so out of love and so… we must love that love.
Christmas Midnight Mass at Mississippi Abbey
Scripture Readings: Is 9:1-6; Titus 2:11-14; Lk 2:1-14
Mark Twain once wrote that, “Christmas always has this high value: it reminds the forgetter of the forgotten.”
Tonight we gather about this crib together with shepherds and we find ourselves united in a bond of shared affection at the presence of this child. We don’t want to forget this child or the shared way He affects us. This is more than affection one naturally feels for the physical presence of a newborn. To be physically present one only has to have her senses focused on the person. There is another kind of presence: a personal presence. To be personally present there must be mutual self-revelation. We must be mutually affected. Remember that.
For personal presence one person must reveal self to another and the other must respond. Without this mutuality there is no personal presence; there is only absence…and forgetfulness. In establishing this relationship, one of the parties must take the initiative. Humanity could not do that in its relationship with God. We are, as St. Paul tells Titus, too self-preoccupied and consequently consumed with seeking our own advantage. Only God could initiate this relationship and initiate it “while we were still sinners.” That is what we are remembering and celebrating tonight.
St. Paul’s letter to Titus tells us what God is revealing of Himself in this initiative. “God’s readiness to give and forgive is now public. Salvation’s available for everyone! We’re being shown how to turn our backs on a godless, indulgent life, and how to take on a God-filled, God-honoring life.” And our response to Him is two-fold: we admit we need it and ardently desire it, and we want to give our lives to passing it on. In short, our response is HOPE. When Paul tells us salvation is available for everyone, he is saying our hope for a worthwhile life need no longer be in our next pleasure experience or ego-triumph. With the birth of this child we can hope in what is pervasive, enduring, and deep. It is a matter of what we set our hearts on. That will form our memory… if we have been forgetters.
Our hope then is in what the forgetter has forgotten: this infant “Who gave Himself for us.” The greatest act of self-revelation that we celebrate tonight is that “He emptied Himself.” He emptied Himself and in order for us to experience that personal presence we must respond in the same way. More precisely, our response is obedience to “the Law of Christ.” That is the law of self-giving, other-regarding love. That is more than we can do and so our hope is in His power.
This power of freedom from the bondage of self, the power to be for others is experienced by every shopper at this time of year as he and she seeks the good of others. And tonight it is most realized when we see the wide eyes of the receiver of our gifts. We experience personal presence.
We share this experience of personal presence with Mary, the mother of the infant and the first disciple. Mary exemplifies the essential task of discipleship. After hearing the word of God and accepting it, she shares it with others, not by merely repeating it, but by interpreting it so that they can see that it is truly Good News and respond to it with their own revelation of need. With Mary we interpret to the forgetter by our way of life what the angel announced at the first Christmas: “I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today a savior has been born for you Who is Christ and Lord.”
 The Message Bible, Titus 2:11-12.
Christmas Midnight Mass at Mississippi Abbey
[Scripture Readings: Is 9:1-6; Ti 2:11-14; Lk 2:1-14]
Tonight the prophet Isaiah describes us as people walking in a land of gloom, under a great burden. Then he promises that a child will be born to us. The evangelist Luke then tells us that promise is fulfilled. … The child is a savior and He is “FOR”. This child who is “for” will reveal humanity to itself.
The child is born as a savior for those of us who suffer from the burden of self-centered fear, from walking in a land of gloom, deceived into thinking our problem is somewhere else. We are doomed to a life of interior unrest, looking for salvation somewhere else. The child will grow to reveal this deception to us and to reveal the truth that will set us free; free to serve God all the days of our life in holiness and justice. First and foremost this child, then, is a sign of MERCY!
A child has been born for us. And His first act of mercy is to make us for the child. Therein is the spirit of Christmas. As a time of gift-giving it is a time of “pro-existence”: a time to be free of self and for others. A self-donating heart values truthfully.
We are, for a time, mercifully freed from the bondage of self. We live “for the sake of”; “on account of”; “because of.” This is why we wish (as well we should) that it were Christmas all year round.
This child will tell us that “I am in you and you are in me” [Jn 14:20]. That means His affections are in us. Those affections free us from self. More than shared beliefs and behaviors, shared affections are what form us as a community. These are the affections of Jesus Christ for the Father. And the Father's affections are for “the work of His hands.”
Tonight we remember that a community of affection was formed around this crib: poor shepherds, kings from the East, citizens reporting for a census; people who ordinarily would not mix. Tonight we, Sisters and guests, gather as a community of affection. The child has not taught us anything; we do not begin as a community of doctrine or belief. The child has not given us a code of conduct so we do not begin as a community of correct practices or observances. We begin this Christmas night as a community whose affection is focused on one and the same thing. It is focused on the infant who is innocent, vulnerable, and dependent on our attention. That affection bonds us.
What is it about this child that our affections, our feelings, enable us to know? It is the value of the child. It is His significance. Without emotions we would not be able to discern the value of anything. Everything would be meaningless.
The teachings and practices of our faith would be meaningless apart from our affective apprehension of the person of this child. The newcomer to the monastic community has only this affection to give her hope of belonging. The Holy Rule and the observances will not bind us as a community apart from this clear realization of our shared affection for this child. As St. Paul said, “If I understand all mysteries and knowledge…if I have faith so as to move mountains and have not love, I am nothing.” [1 Cor 13:2] Ideas or voices which lack love cannot be “of the Spirit.” When teaching and practice are affectively experienced as embodying great, indeed life-saving, value they draw us closer to God as well as to the community that teaches and lives them. Feeling is believing!
We gather around this child as the Body of Christ. Each of us has a need to belong and it is the affection for this child that connects us, that effects our sense of belonging. Beliefs and practices or observances will strengthen the sense of belonging only if they are motivated by the shared affection for “the One God and Father of all” that this infant will spend His life pointing to. The child will teach our hearts the “order of love.” “Blessed are those who are not offended at [Him].”
Pope Francis calls the face of Jesus Christ, of this child born for us, “the face of the Fathers mercy.” We experience that mercy tonight when we experience His affection in us, leading to a sense of belonging that frees us from the bondage of self and makes us “for” one another.
So tomorrow, when we conclude our Eucharistic celebration of the Nativity, we will not sing “Truth to the World,” not “Good behavior to the World.” We'll sing, “Joy to the World!” May that joy be with you throughout the coming year.
Christmas Midnight Mass at Mississippi Abbey
[Scripture Readings: Is 9:1-3, 5-6; Titus 2:11-14; Lk 2:1-14]
Tonight we celebrate the birth of Christ, our Savior. What if there was no Savior, what would it be like? Once upon a time on a chilly winter night a young French woman leaned over the railing of a bridge and stared at the icy waters of the river Seine. No one was around except Jean Baptiste Clamance who walked across the bridge and passed by after hesitating a moment. Then in the midnight silence, when he was some distance away, he heard the dreadful sound of a body striking water followed by a repeated cry. He stopped short and trembled from cold and shock, but he did not turn around. He told himself he had to be quick, but he felt an irresistible weakness steal over him. Making excuses he said, “It’s too late, too far.” Slowly, he walked away and went home.
This story, called The Fall, written by Albert Camus, is about a man in a world without a Savior. In his self-centeredness, he used to think he was a good man, quite respectable, before that winter night when the suicidal fall of a young woman caused him to fall. Until then he was fundamentally pleased with himself. He says, “[On] certain mornings … I felt like a king’s son or a burning bush, … I always wanted to be served with a smile. … Modesty helped me to shine, and humility to conquer. … The refrain of my whole life is I, I, I.” Now, exposed by his fall he tried to forget it, but he couldn’t. Then he tried to avoid judgment. Seeing doves in the sky he says, “Let’s hope they are bringing good news. Everyone will be saved, [won’t they]? — and not only the elect.” But, he can’t escape the awful judgment of his own conscience. The story ends with a wish that never ceased echoing through his sleepless nights. He says, “O young woman, throw yourself into the water again so that I may a second time have the chance of saving both of us!” However, weakness continues to overcome him. He thinks, “Brrr! The water’s so cold! It’s too late now. Fortunately!” Jean Baptiste Clamance cannot relive his mistake and undo it. And if he could, he doubts he would. In a world without a Savior he is forever tormented by his fall.
Dr. Bernard Nathanson was also a man who lived without a God who saves. At first he took pride in the high professional standards of his clinic where he presided over 60,000 abortions during the 1970’s. Then one day he recorded an abortion by means of ultrasound. He watched a twelve week old fetus struggle to save himself and finally open his mouth in a silent scream as he died. Dr. Nathanson trembled with horror and shock. He felt tremendous guilt, a brutal crushing knowledge of his own fall. But it was too late, he had gone too far. Off and on during the 1980’s he considered suicide. He often woke up from fitful dreams of that silent scream feeling strangled by some nameless dread. He writes, “I felt the burden of sin growing heavier and more insistent … I was afraid.” His own sense of justice haunted him. He stood condemned in his own eyes, but was unable to relive his mistakes and undo them. In a world without a Savior he was forever tormented by those silent screams.
Like the woman in the river, and like Jean Baptiste Clamance and Dr. Nathanson we cannot save ourselves. Our world needed someone to plunge into the icy waters where we had fallen and save us. Tonight we remember that the world does have a Savior. We celebrate that mighty leap by the Son of God recorded in Sacred Scripture: “When peaceful stillness compassed everything and the night in its swift course was half spent, the all-powerful word leapt from heaven’s royal throne like a fierce warrior into a doomed land”.
But, was it too late for Dr. Nathanson, had he gone too far? In 1989 he saw pro-lifers in front of an abortion clinic quietly praying with an intensity of love that astonished him and led him to belief in God. Later he met Fr. John McCloskey who opened his eyes and ears to the good news of Christ’s forgiveness that he so desperately needed. Finally, on a December morning in 1996, Dr. Nathanson was accompanied to the baptismal font in St. Patrick’s Cathedral by Joan Andrews, a woman who had spent five years in a Florida prison for nonviolent resistance at abortion clinics. Now she stood by a man who had committed 60,000 abortions and she witnessed the power of Christ save him as he was washed clean from all his sins. Dr. Nathanson had been an atheist by conviction, without God, and a doctor without morals until he heard that silent scream. Afterwards he felt as helpless as an unborn child to save himself. Speaking softly and with deep feeling about his baptism he said, “I felt all fear fall away. I experienced sheer grace.“It was not too late for Christ to save him.
Albert Camus also experienced the anguish of atheism. He believed we are born out of nothingness and return to nothingness. In stories like The Fall he narrates how hard it is to follow conscience if there is no God, no Savior. If righteousness and wickedness both end in nothingness, then life is absurd. The manner of his death was consistent with his belief. At the age of forty-six, in 1960, he was suddenly killed in an automobile accident when his car skidded on a wet road and crashed into a tree. In his world he did not yet believe in the God who saves.
Jesus also died a premature and seemingly absurd death, crucified at thirty-three. But his death gave us life. It was God’s greatest act of friendship for us. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13). In Camus’ story of The Fall, Jean Baptiste Clamance describes the small sacrifice of one person for another. He says, “I heard of a man whose friend had been imprisoned and who slept on the floor of his room every night in order not to enjoy a comfort of which his friend was deprived.” He asks, “Who will sleep on the floor for us?” Jesus not only laid down in a manger of straw for us, he suffered imprisonment, scourging, crowning with thorns, and crucifixion. He plunged deeply into our icy waters giving up his life to save ours.
His love and his saving work did not end there. Being the Son of God death could not harm Jesus or hold him. His resurrection foretells our own. Jesus continues his saving work in our lives at every communion by plunging deeply into our very bodies with his own body and blood constantly cleansing us. This is sheer grace. Our world does have a Savior, a might warrior who leaps into a doomed world and continues every day to lift us out of the icy waters of our sins and to warm our hearts with his intimate, loving, everlasting friendship. Thanks be to God, a Savior has been born for us. It is not too late, we are never too far from him.